learning the words: christian

celtic cross

Today’s guest post is from Lana, who blogs at Lana Hobbs the Brave. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

When I was in the third grade–in the Bible belt–I was discussing my faith with a classmate, and she asked when I’d been baptized. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, so she told me if I wasn’t baptized, I must not really be a christian.

To be a Christian, in my mind, was synonymous with being saved. In fact, “being saved” is talked about more often in some circles, perpetuating the idea that getting to Heaven is one of the most important parts of the faith.

Now someone was saying I had to be baptized to be a Christian?
If I died in an earthquake at school before I could be baptized, would I go to hell?

I asked the teacher on recess duty if I was doomed to hell. She didn’t really answer.

On the other hand, I was saved by faith alone, right? So I didn’t have to be baptized?  So if my friend believed only baptized people were saved, maybe she wasn’t really a christian, since she wasn’t relying on faith alone. Maybe I needed to share the gospel with her.

Since then, Christian has always been a difficult term to wrap my mind around.

Catholics pray to Mary (or so I was told)– so are they the real Christians? Dad said probably a lot of them are, Mom seemed to doubt it. Mormons? Dad knew Mormons, he figured that a lot of them were, but I read a book from the church library that said Mormonism was a cult–so maybe they weren’t.

Then there were the people who responded to calls to “be saved” multiple times, and even got baptized several times, saying :I realized I wasn’t saved before, but now I am.” They believed they were saved, they believed in Jesus and tried to obey, and then they realized they weren’t really Christian–  they didn’t have actual faith, they only thought they did?

If that is what Christianity is, how can anyone ever be certain they are really a christian, really saved, really following after God?

Then there are those who claim to be Christian, and  bomb abortion clinics, or picket soldiers funerals, or write hateful messages online. They claim to be obeying God, but many quickly say “They aren’t true Christians.” The same goes for Christians like Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell, when conservatives talk about them. Well, then, what is “Christian”? From looking around, reading what people write, hearing what people say, does it just mean “acting and thinking in a way consistent with my interpretation of the Bible”?

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the only meaningful way to define ‘Christian’ is “one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity.” He anticipates, in this usage of the word, a possible objection: “may not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” In response to this imagined objection, he replies :this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful.”

“If once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening,’ the sense of the word Christian, it, too, will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts . . . and obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word.”

Lewis says the original meaning (he also uses the word ‘obvious,’ but I didn’t find it so until he pointed it out) is “those who accepted the teachings of the apostles . . . The point is not a theological or a moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.”

I do find this a far more useful way of talking about it, and it helps us avoid the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy that so many people use when confronted with ‘Christians’ who they really don’t want to be associated with.

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the issue of “who is saved?”

I don’t think Lewis would think this is quite the problem my childhood self thought it was. For one thing, he’s rather an inclusivist, and for another, he seemed to believe the Christian life was more about being a new man than about avoiding Hell.

I think that following Christ” is more about loving others than about whether or not you are saved. I think it makes sense to stop trying to evaluate how “saved” a person is, and instead take them at their word– do they believe in the basic doctrines of Christianity?

And for the record, by that definition, I am not a Christian. There are many doctrines I can’t make peace with right now. As soon as I put a useful meaning to the word “Christian,” I realized I couldn’t take it on myself anymore. I’m now nameless, but I still embrace the teachings of love, humility, and justice.

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  • May I suggest a different definition of ‘Christian’?

    Christian: A follower of Jesus Christ.

    That is it! We may understand beliefs and practices different ways, but if we follow Jesus who can deny that we are Christians?

    • I agree with the sentiment behind this definition, but I’m wondering how useful it is as a definition. How do we define “follow Jesus”?

      • jesuswithoutbaggage

        Why do we need to define it further? Is it not something just between Jesus and his follower?

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  • I call myself a christian, but have been told some of my ideas aren’t “orthodox.” The way I see it, when Jesus died for the sins of the world, he really died for the sins of the world and is restoring all of creation including those in “hell” (which is really an english word that didn’t exist in any sense in the original greek). I do not believe Jesus or the father who loves us so much would create a being to torment it endlessly. Some people call that a heresy. But George Macdonald, who C.S. Lewis loved as a writer so much, was of the same opinion.

    • I’ve been taking a really hard look at different representations of universalism recently. I’m beginning to think that the typical understanding of soteriology in orthodox Christianity may not really be in line with the Bible– at least, not with all of the Bible. At the very least, I don’t think it’s always necessary for someone to specifically call on the name of Jesus and believe in the Resurrection to be saved.

      I do have problems with God forcing people to spend eternity with him who don’t want to.

      Morgan had an interesting way of presenting universalism:

      • All I can say is eternity is a long time. I’m not saying some people won’t be punished to the last penny. I don’t believe anyone will come to Christ without justice having been done as well.

      • I realized I was answering more of what Morgan said than what you pointed out. I do believe people can reject God. The question is, would God who is love and creates peace create a person he knew would reject him and live in utter misery for all of eternity?

        • I struggle with that question, too. But, I guess for me, I gave up the “hell as punishment/lake of fire” idea a long, long time ago. I read what C.S. Lewis had to say in The Great Divorce, and that become a huge part of what I think about “hell.” I’m also starting to re-examine certain things that show up in the Bible– like the fact that God and Jesus are more than willing to use myth and human understandings of things in order to lead us to a bigger, grander idea.

          • My understanding of hell came from the Great Divorce too, until I read some of George Macdonald’s works. I do think the parables in the bible should be taken as parables rather than literal facts like so many fundamentalists believe.

          • Exactly.

      • jesuswithoutbaggage

        I do not think there is a punishment for rejecting God, but neither will anyone be forced to live with him. You might be interested in my blog post on this topic:

    • Ariel Harper

      Hi Nicole,
      This is not a rebuttle at all. I have not read the sources your have mentioned in any of your comments, but am interested to do so. (Maybe after my current study of Creationism/Evolution, I’ll venture onto the “heaven and hell” topics…) I am just curious what you’re asking…I may be misreading your question. When you stated:
      “I do believe people can reject God. The question is, would God who is love and creates peace create a person he knew would reject him and live in utter misery for all of eternity?”

      I too believe people can reject God. Is your question saying would God “punish” someone who doesn’t want to live with Him forever make him/her do so? OR are you saying that b/c God is love and creates peace, would God create a person he knew would reject him but in the end God’s love is going to change that person’s desire (say, when the person dies, maybe that is when their eyes are open to wanting to be with God??…if that’s even possible!) I don’t know if that last part makes any sense…haha!
      These are such a great questions that get me thinking. I’m just curious what you are saying. Thank you!! 🙂

      • I meant to say continue to reject him forever. I do not believe God becomes a different person after we die. I believe he is willing to wait for us to come to him if it takes all of eternity. I guess a lot of bible passages have let me to think in the end everyone will choose him. Such as 1 Timothy 4:10 “God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe”. Also all the many times the word all is used in relation to us being saved. Such as Romans 5;18 “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” So hopefully that answers your question. I’m kind of a hopeful universalist in that I still believe it is all in Jesus’ hands. But could it be in more loving hands?

      • Ariel Harper

        Nicole, I didn’t see a “reply” button on your recent comment so I’m putting my response here…hope you see it. Thank you for your response. Yes, Romans 5:18 has made me ponder the very same thing!
        My husband was the one who brought to my attention the question: Does God (Why would God) punish people infinitely for finite sins? I had never thought about it before and it is hard reconsidering and rethinking many things that I’ve been taught for over 30+ years.

        Thanks again!

  • Ariel Harper

    Thank you for posting this. So much of what is stated in this post resonates with me… Especially the “be saved”, “get saved”, however one words it. I have been “saved” and baptized FOUR times (five if you count the time my mom was baptized while pregnant with me). 😉 I’d pray…time would go by, I’d doubt my salvation. I’d pray, “get it settled”, and have peace for a few years. Then an evangelist would come to our church and it started all over again! Haha! I started to realize I was making these “salvation prayers” a work! I was so frustrated!! So confused!! And wondering why most of my friends weren’t struggling with this whole “getting saved” thing.
    Then recently I started pondering “What is the point (not purpose) of a person’s conversion?” Is it the same for everyone? Of course not… it can’t be! I knew a person could decide to follow Jesus anywhere…in a church service, VBS, school, vacation, in their bedroom (which is where I believe I finally wrestled and laid to rest that vicious cycle of praying the “getting saved” prayer). But still, how do we define Christian?

    I’ll try to be brief. This is already getting long. My husband recently left the Christian faith of our upbringing in the Southern Baptist world. It honestly has been devastating to me b/c it is not the only thing that has been revealed/confessed by him (that’s another story). I struggle with so many questions too about the Christian faith like I never have before. I still want Christ, but my husband being so science-minded brings up interesting points that I’ve never even thought about. On the one hand he’ll say he’s not a Christian, but on the other he’ll say he’s not in the sense of the “fundamentalist” sense. Which the latter I totally get. I’m coming out of believing some things I was taught (i.e. evolution and the metaphorical meanings of Genesis). Shhh! Don’t tell my Baptists friends…or my parents. 😉 All that say, he and I had a conversation last week about this very thing: What is Christian? He believes Jesus was a man, but believes that the parts about him being divine were made up. Jesus didn’t write anything himself and we just rely on the writings of others to get our ideas about him. So, I’m standing there saying a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Must one believe Jesus was divine? Must one believe that he really was the Son of God?
    My faith has never been more challenged than it has over the past 1.5 years!! Rachel Held Evans and Peter Enns has helped me a lot… and I’m adding you too, for I’ve read several of your posts and found them thought-provoking, interesting, and helpful.

    No need to respond unless your just want to….. I’m just getting some things out! 😉


    • First off: I adore talking with my readers. Always. It’s the most fantastically awesome thing about having a blog and people reading it.

      And, I can honestly say that I’ve been where you and your husband has been. Everyone’s journey will be different, and yours might go a very different direction than mine, and that’s good. I was an agnostic for a few years, and what eventually brought me back, interestingly enough, was the Gospels. From a scientific and historic perspective, the Gospels are a reliable narrative of the events of Jesus’ life, including the Resurrection. I don’t have to believe that they are inspired, or written by God, or that the Bible was inerrant, for me to trust that they are credible ancient documents.

      But, that is not a conclusion that every person comes to. I feel comfortable with the level of trust I have in the Gospels, but not everyone can make the same decision.

      I hope that you and your husband will keep on exploring, keep on asking questions. The most exciting part about my journey right now is that I’m done looking for “The Answer.” I want an answer that works for me right now, knowing full well that it might be what I believe for forever.

      • Ariel Harper

        Thank you very much for your response! The phrase “living the questions” is so where I am right now. The clear cut answers are just not there anymore and part of me is really glad to be on this journey b/c I feel that it has deepened my faith and at the same time made me realize how much I JUST DON’T KNOW!

        Curious if you’ve read The Five Gospels (big thick black book-ha!)?? I haven’t, but my husband has and I believe it was very influential in him turning his back on the accurateness of the Gospels. Honestly, I don’t know enough to comment on why I choose to believe the Gospels other than the cliche, “I just do” and “that is what I was taught to believe”. I am starting what I call a Jesus study…trying to figure out what I DO believe about this person Jesus and at the same time I, for some reason, just can’t and don’t want to throw Him out! I’m personally struggling with HOW to read the Bible now that my eyes are opening to the myths and humanness of scripture and exploring how to view inerrancy and authority now. It’s like a rebooting!
        What are some resources that have helped you with the authenticity of the Gospels?

  • wayofcats

    Did not Jesus himself cover this topic? Matthew 22:36 – 40

    The Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence… so they sent a lawyer to ask him “the greatest commandment.”

    Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


  • Labels are always tricky things, in my opinion. If I consider myself a follower of Christ, but I reject the “doctrines” of mainstream Christianity, including half of the Bible itself, can I still call myself a Christian? In my opinion, yes, I think I can. The doctrines of Christianity have never been set in stone, and it’s only a more recent understanding of the religion that there is some sort of “core” doctrine. The range of Christian beliefs have vastly varied. There was even one group that thought the God of the OT was the Devil (which might not be that far off considering how violent the OT is). On the other hand, can someone argue that I’m not really a Christian because I don’t accept the majority of the Bible? Well, then of course we get into the “no true scotsman” territory really quickly. Who is someone else to tell me what I am or am not?

    Labels, I think, I there to help me define myself to others and to myself. On the other hand, we live in a world that depends on categorizing and labeling things. Few seem capable of interacting with the world without trying to label everything. Perhaps we would do well to learn to just let things be without trying to figure out where they “fit.”

    I don’t identify as Christian anymore, mostly because I found the label no longer held meaning for me and was rather problematic when interacting with others (because they make all sorts of fun stereotypes about that label that I just don’t feel like dealing with). When it comes to others though, I think individuals should identify themselves however they feel they should, and people should learn to get to know what others actually believe rather than relying on the faulty and shallow assumptions of thinking labels all have one meaning. Language is abstract and messy and constantly evolving. Labels are relative. And there are endless layers to this discussion. lol I’m starting to geek out, but thanks for the thought-provocation. 😉

  • notleia

    Oh goodness, the question of baptism. My Church-of-Christ peeps were pretty big on it, though thankfully they didn’t think I needed hammered on it. I was stocking up verses and rationale to justify myself, even referencing my Quaker heritage and their belief in baptism of the spirit rather than by means of water. It’s just not a symbolic ritual I feel drawn to performing (I’m from the tradition that considers it symbolic).

  • Mike Dunster

    I would like to say how much I have enjoyed the comment and discussion on this blog. On the topic in question, my tuppenceworth is:
    1. For me, believing the teaching of the apostles (to use Lewis’ phrase) is not the same as believing all the teaching of the church: I believe there is much in (for example) the Nicean creed that could be seen as the church trying get its head round how to describe God and Jesus, but is an extrapolation of the teaching of the apostles, rather than their teaching per se. Thus, for me there are various things that my church teaches and professes that I can not in all honesty say that I believe, but I still believe I am a Christian. I still believe in God and Christ, I still offer worship, I still try to follow Jesus’ teaching, I still partake in communion.
    2. I believe in “Hell” in a way: I believe that God, in his mercy, will not force people to come to him who do not want to, but will provide a place where his light does not shine so brightly. Rather like the situation in The Great Divorce, I do not believe people are forced to be there eternally, but can leave if they want.

  • Excellent post. Beautifully and thoughtfully written, as always.
    How would you suggest Christians approach those who have left Christianity? As a former Christian, I am repeatedly told I was never a true Christian because, if I had been, I would have never left/stopped believing. I know in my heart what I believed and just how sincere I was about it and am very annoyed when people brush off my experiences as “wrong,” “insincere,” and “not enough.”

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